The industry is braced for a wave of redundancies in the autumn, but the rapid adoption of online learning during the COVID-19 crisis has created a model that can help tackle the sector’s long-term skills challenge, the Association believes.
BESA president Neil Brackenridge said many employers were being forced to defer taking on new apprentices and were, instead, focusing on their existing intakes who missed out on several months of training during the lockdown.
“We are prioritising our existing apprentices; getting them back into our businesses and focusing on developing them before we take on more recruits,” he told a webinar hosted by BESA. He added that there would also be a lot of displaced workers after the end of the Government’s furlough scheme, but that many of these could be redeployed and upskilled.
A survey carried out by BuildUK showed that 45% of employers in construction expected to make redundancies this year and 74% were taking on fewer apprentices than last year. 31% also said they would not be able to spend the funds available to them through the Apprenticeship Levy this year.
“Investment in skills is one of the first things to get cut during an economic downturn,” said BESA’s director of training and skills Helen Yeulet. “However, the COVID crisis has also created an opportunity for employers to take a fresh look at what we actually want our people to be doing and, therefore, what skills they will need.”
The crisis accelerated the demand for new skills as well as the upskilling of existing workforces to embrace modern ways of working, such as off-site manufacture, and to help deliver the government’s vision for a ‘green recovery’. A new generation of teachers will also have to be upskilled, according to Ms Yeulet.
“BSE is a very scattered sector that needs a wider and more varied range of skills than many others,” she told the BESA webinar. “This makes it relatively expensive and complicated for FE colleges to deliver our apprenticeships.
“However, a lot of learning moved online during the lockdown. We were already going that way, but the crisis speeded things up and created a new learning model. If we can deliver more of the theoretical elements remotely that will free up the colleges to focus on the practical training. It will also reduce volume of students attending in person at any one time to help colleges maintain social distancing.”
The wider availability of remote learning also meant essential regulatory requirements like health & safety training and F-Gas registration could still be delivered during the lockdown even when the colleges were closed. This ‘blended approach’ to training is the foundation of the new BESA Academy, which is launching this month to support employers and the FE sector with a wide range of targeted online courses.
“It should also help employers engage more easily with the education sector especially as the new standard apprenticeships are being rolled out this summer. Many of these were developed by employers through BESA to produce a workforce directly suited to the industry’s needs,” said Ms Yeulet.
Jill Nicholls from the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education told the BESA webinar that the crisis had also led to better collaboration between different government departments. It had produced “new money, new policies and new processes” for technical education as it was seen as “a key vehicle in helping the economic recovery”.
“It is also important that we support redundant apprentices and we are looking at ways to help them transfer their skills without having to start again from scratch,” she said.
Ms Nicholls said there were still gaps in the new standard apprenticeships being rolled out for the building engineering sector and urged employers to come up with ideas for more apprenticeships that could help them develop the skilled workforces they need.
Chris Nicholls from the Association of Colleges added that the blended learning approach adopted by the BESA Academy would help to support the phased entrance of students back into their FE colleges in September.
With more materials delivered online, they would be able to reduce the amount of time they spent physically in classrooms.
However, he told the BESA webinar that colleges had adopted online learning with “varying degrees of success” and cautioned that “IT poverty” could be a stumbling block.
“The move to online learning during the crisis had to be put in place in just a few days when normally it would have taken a couple of years to plan and implement,” he said. “A lot of learners are going to need more support with the kit they need to access their teaching.”
IT poverty was the focus of a survey carried out by BESA, which revealed considerable regional inequalities. It showed that some apprentices were in danger of falling behind their peers because of limited access to the right kind of computer hardware and IT support. The variable quality of rural broadband was also a problem.
“The lockdown period was an excellent testing ground for the new remote teaching model,” said Ms Yeulet. “In theory, it should have been the perfect time for apprentices to catch up on course work and planning, but in practice it was not quite so easy.”
She explained BESA decided to carry out a full survey when it became clear that some apprentices were trying to work on smart phones.
“The issue is not just the equipment, however, but also around internet access, which is as much about geography as funding. It is imperative that the IT issue does not exacerbate regional and economic inequalities.”
The survey uncovered considerable regional variations: Almost 20% of apprentices in Wales and 10% in Scotland did not have the use of their own laptop or iPad compared with a much smaller proportion in England.
According to the BESA survey, almost half of all Scottish apprentices and more than a third of their Welsh counterparts attempting to continue studying from home during the lockdown had to share a laptop, while this was only true of around 20% of those based in England.
“If we want to increase online engagement, it is important that we understand where this might disadvantage some young people and discourage them from taking up careers in our industry,” said Ms Yeulet.
“When schools closed, some parents found it hard to cope with home schooling and many were caught out by the sudden need to increase their broadband contracts, for example. Some had to pay more for better broadband speeds etc., which can make all the difference if you are already struggling financially.
“Boris Johnson spoke about ‘levelling up’ to narrow the inequality gap between different parts of the country and this must also be part of the equation when it comes to supporting apprenticeships,” added Ms Yeulet.
BESA is working with its members and a range of industry partners to tackle ‘IT poverty’. One potential solution is repurposing old equipment that could be donated to those apprentices in greatest need.
“The pace of change over the last few months has caught many people out,” said Ms Yeulet. “However, it has also created an opportunity to accelerate many innovations – increased remote working and access to better quality IT for all being an important case in point.”
The Association also welcomed the “ambitious plans” announced by Chancellor Rushi Sunak in his Summer Statement that included generous subsidies for employers willing to take on apprentices.
BESA praised the government’s new £2bn worth of measures aimed at improving employment prospects for the younger generation. These include £2,000 for every employer who takes on an apprentice and £1,000 for any willing to take on new trainees. Firms will also receive £1,500 if they take on an apprentice aged over 25.
Before the Chancellor’s announcement, shadow business minister Lucy Powell told another BESA webinar that a whole generation of young people was in danger of being adversely affected by the coronavirus crisis.
“There has been a big drop in numbers taken on [during the pandemic],” she said. “If we are really going to build our way out of this crisis…that will need to be underpinned by skills.”
Ms Powell said there had been serious “teething problems” with the Apprenticeship Levy. “We will have to make it a lot easier for businesses to take on apprentices. We will need to provide more funding and more flexibility.”